Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Doughy redemption

As much as I'm opposed to clever names - and rhyming - I don't really mind Wow Bao. Of course it's a Lettuce Entertain You venture and you know this because marketing-wise, it's tight as a Chinese war drum, with a clean, eye-catching logo and that name. It's just so confident. Not many things are Wow these days, and I don't know if Wow Bao really lives up to its name, but hey, LEYE executive types, props to you for trying.

A bao is a Chinese steamed bun with a filling. Pork is probably the most common, and makes the bao into a kind of Chinese slider. A slider is never a bad thing. The dough is like a fine, soft bread dough without the crust. Put peanut butter and jelly inside, and my daughter would eat these for life. The fillings range from thai curry chicken to spicy mongolian beef to whole wheat edamame. They're soft little savory Chinese treats, and with one of their Asian salads or soup, make a respectable lunch.

They also have dessert and breakfast bao, which I haven't tried but fear are a bad mating experiment between Dunkin' Donuts and Chinese takeout. You could put anything inside that dough, but that doesn't mean you should. With that said, I'll keep an open mind and next time, have a coconut custard bao. It sounds gross - all sweet, starchy mush - but I'm willing to take one for the blog.

Wow Bao also has homemade ginger ale, which shot to super stardom years ago at Big Bowl, another Lettuce concept. I've included a rough recipe at the bottom. Not to sound like a second grader but, it's so easy.

If there was a Wow Bao in Evanston, I would go once a week. I would get a Bao combo: two Bao ( I like the Thai curry chicken and spicy Mongolian beef) and a choice of their Asian salads, which are fresh and appropriately Asian-inspired. I would also get the ginger ale. It sort of completes the picture.

Homemade Ginger Ale

1 knob of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced (about the size of a small finger)
1 1/2 cups of sugar
1 1/2 cups water
Seltzer water or Club Soda

First, blanch the ginger by placing it in boiling water for about a minute, then drain. This mellows out the burn of the ginger. Rinse the pot, then put the sugar and cup of water in it along with the drained ginger. Bring to a boil, and boil for a couple of minutes. You're doing this to dissolve the sugar, so only boil it long enough to achieve that. You have now made a ginger simple syrup. Let cool, and store overnight in your fridge, covered.

To make the ginger ale, just add some ginger simple syrup to some seltzer or club soda. Start by adding a Tbs and keep adding until it tastes right to you. Other things you can add to the simple syrup when you add the ginger: citrus zest (just the colored part) or a split vanilla bean. If you want more syrup to make a big batch, just multiply up. The ratio of sugar to water is always 1:1. Assuming your fridge's temp is constant, the syrup should keep for two weeks.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Life, death, and food courts

I had a weak moment the other day and went to a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant. I've always felt that Lettuce Entertain You has singlehandedly made Chicago a B+ restaurant town by marginalizing the dining experience with cutesy tongue-in-cheek themes and even cuter names (Lawrence of Oregano and Johnathan Livingston Seafood tie for Most Heinous).

Shouldn't the theme of a restaurant be good food? I know that sounds completely crazy, but why not? A small neighborhood restaurant where the chef reports to no one, least of all a board of directors, might actually do well. I know we'd be giving up waitresses disguised as wiseass bobby soxers and menus rife with clever lines from the clever in-house ad agency, but it just might work.

We ended up going to Foodlife which, at its inception a dozen or so years ago, was an interesting idea that took on traditional food courts. It offered a multitude of stations, each with a different type of food. Mexican, Italian, BBQ, two types of Asian.....it was pretty much all there, along with the requisite salad and dessert stations. Foodlife promised to be a United Nations kind of food experience, even if it was dumbed down by corporate culture.

In the beginning, the food was well-prepared. The vegetables were colorful, the meat was fresh, and sometimes, the choices were even a little inspired. But last week, sad, pathetic salmon filets sat in pools of cloudy oil and old pasta curled at the edges waiting to be sauced and plated. I was witnessing the slow death of Foodlife.

It's not as if I feel any outrage. I mean, when was the last time you ate at a Lettuce restaurant that wasn't completely rote? Caesar or bibb lettuce salad to start, plainly prepared meat and a small selection of predictable vegetables for the main, and Boston cream pie for dessert. It's like eating at an expensive nursing home for well-to-do Gold Coasters.

I must confess there was another reason I ate there: I found an eight year-old $100 Lettuce Entertain You gift card in a drawer and it was still valid. I now have $53 left on the card. That's enough for two lobster rolls and two diet cokes at Shaw's, the semi-precious jewel in the LEYE crown. It's no Pearl Oyster Bar, but it'll do.